On The Newsroom & breaking news

I finally caught up and finished watching Season 2 of The Newsroom, and at the end of it all I’m (still) feeling pretty half-hearted about Aaron Sorkin’s meta-foray into media drama. Like many critics and people involved in the news industry, it’s a show I love to hate but can’t help watching (and, against all odds, hoping for a third season). Here are my main problems:

(1) I can’t stand Alison Pill, her acting, the inconsistencies of her character, and the incompetence with which her character approaches bother professional and personal life.

(2) Similarly—and this is a flaw that has been widely remarked upon—the dichotomy between the gravity of the newsroom and the levity/ineptitude of social life across the board is stupid.

(2) The dialogue is almost always too fast, so we miss the good stuff.

(3) Speaking of which, even if the stuff is well-written, no one TALKS like that, Aaron Sorkin!! No one talks like that!

(4) The “Africa” thing, even though it was a while ago, still bugs me: a) the fact they always referred to the continent and not the country (because “Uganda” is too obscure for supposedly well-educated reporters?), b) the predictable nature of the plotline, c) the fact that Maggie got to go, when she had no expertise or background in the area, did not prove her competence or the critical nature of the story she was chasing, etc… international assignments are expensive, and therefore very hard to get and prestigious to be chosen for. Maggie can’t just “go to Africa.” This pushed all my buttons.

(5) This isn’t how the news is done.

(6) Operation Genoa? Really? Jerry Dantana? REALLY?

Lost in the desert where Sorkin left them.

So why do I watch?

(1) The lines are (usually) very smart and quippy.

(2) Sometimes it is nice to see the stuff the media messed up on the first time around be fixed retrospectively.

(3) Narcissism: I like watching shows that relate to my life, even if it’s a glamorized or inaccurate dramatization of a culture that I ascribe to.

I spent last summer working at a major news company. Although I was not a part of a daily show like News Night with Will McAvoy, I was part of a reporting and producing team that put together regular content for some of the most-watched news programming on television. My office environment was casual and chummy, but very professional: these people knew how to do their jobs. We approached each story with care and attention to detail. There was a lot of discussion with legal teams, a lot of scripting and transcribing, a lot of research and cold phone calls. We cruised Twitter and Facebook, blogs and social media — for sources and for tip-offs. (Unlike The Newsroom, we weren’t afraid of technology.) And more than anything I got really, really good at stalking people, finding phone numbers, and making cold calls. Because most of the time news does not fall into your lap. And most of the time you don’t have personal connections. So you make it work.

But those were on busy days with breaking news or investigations we needed to push through. The rest of the time I waited. And waited. And read the news. And waited.

Which is, of course, the biggest problem with The Newsroom: the sense that news is breaking all the time, that there’s a constant hype. News flash: news doesn’t break all the time. Big “breaking stories” are rare.

What changes, and what makes news compelling to watch, is that channels choose which stories they will follow and give air time. They select which narratives they will develop onscreen, as opposed to letting them languish and wither in the Internet ether. These narratives become news, even though they are almost never “new”. Because by the time 6:00pm rolls around, most of news-hungry America has already trawled through its own series of sites, gotten the alerts, heard the stuff that’s happening that day. Television’s role is increasingly not to tell us what’s going on, but rather to solidify the pre-eminence of certain storylines over others. To assign a hierarchy to the great mass of information and events that occurs all around the world each day.

Or at least, that’s how I see it. I can’t quite tell what Sorkin’s vision of evening television news is, though, and maybe that’s what bothers me most: is Sorkin envisioning News Night as the last great show in the canon of great news shows? As an arbiter of information hierarchies? Or as just another big never-ending whip-smart debate?

I don’t think Aaron Sorkin knows what he wants, unfortunately, because Aaron Sorkin is still suck in an era of television where the news shows actually mattered. Newsflash: news shows are not going to come back. The big thing today, across the media, are news brands—blogs, reporters, personalities, or channels that viewers trust and that can be accessed anywhere at any time; forward-thinking technology for 21st-century media consumers. In contrast, The Newsroom and everything about it takes place in the recent past—and so does Sorkin’s vision.

Then again, I never said I didn’t like a good bit of historical fiction!

The angst in this cast photo rivals that of the OC. Well done, News Night.

Over the course of Season 2, critics talked about how important it was for the team on The Newsroom to make the huge mistake that was Operation Genoa; it showed that even truth-tellers are fallible, and how they dealt with making professional mistakes humanized the characters. But the Season 2 finale, full of neatly-tied-up romantic plotlines and heroic men saving women from themselves (did you really need to lay it on quite that thick, Sorkin?) felt regressive, operatic, and cheesy.

If The Newsroom gets a third season, I’ll keep watching—because I’m curious, and I like some good guilty-pleasure liberal speechmaking (and the historical fiction, as I said). But as quality TV? Sorry Newsroom, but unlike your real-life versions, you suck.